Co-founder reflects on 40-year history of River Bank Run

Marty Allen
Fifth Third River Bank Run co-founder Marty Allen reflects on the race's 40-year history.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In the late 1970s, downtown Grand Rapids was in the middle of an urban revitalization.

Old Kent Bank had just built a new building, the city was erecting brand new structures and commercial enterprises were expanding downtown.

But for Marty Allen and Old Kent Bank Chairman Dick Gillette, it was missing something: people.

“Dick Gillette, who was sort of the visionary during that whole urban renewal,” Allen said. “He and I had had a conversation about, ‘Yeah, we have all these buildings, but we don’t have any people down here.”

A few days later, Allen got a call from a stranger. He had an idea. His pitch: a road race through the streets of Grand Rapids, using its most vital asset – the Grand River – as the centerpiece.

That man was the president of the Grand Rapids Track Club, Frank Cashman.

“I went to Gillette’s office and he said afterwards, ‘Let’s do it.’ And that’s how it started. It’s grown to be a huge event for the community,” Allen said.

There was no way to imagine the River Bank Run would grow from just 1,200 runners in the first race in 1978 to more than 18,000 in 2017. Of course, 40 years of success hasn’t come without hurdles.

“We had a train, [it] was stopped on the tracks on the course. I mean, we were within minutes of starting the race and we quick closed everything down until the train got out of there,” Allen said. “We had to create a couple courses different than the normal course. One starting out at the ball park because of construction, and that got a little chaotic trying to get people to the starting line. And that’s the only time I’ve seen any runners upset, because some of them never made it to the starting line.”

That was in 2000. There was construction being done on the S-curve. That was the only time the race moved locations.

For all of its glory, Allen says the River Bank Run didn’t get off to a fantastic start. In its first year, the race started at Calder Plaza and the finish line was located under the Calder.

The runners finished up the 25K running east up the grueling Michigan Street hill. But there was so much traffic at the finish line, it jammed up, creating a standstill line that wrapped from the Calder down Michigan Street, according to Allen.

“Well, one time and out, we did our race now we’re finished. But the runners were great, they understood. It was exciting,” Allen said.

It was of course, not a “one-and-done” race for Allen and the River Bank Run. As the city grew, the race grew along with it.

Now 40 years later, both are unrecognizable from that first year. Allen said the race’s success is a credit to two different groups; the runners who have come back every single year and the volunteers who make the largest road race in the United States possible.

“There’s such variety of stories. It’s kind of the volunteers and the runners themselves and a credit to the committee that puts it all together,” Allen said. “It’s a mirror of the community.”